Scales For Absolute Beginners

author: peterk date: 10/29/2009 category: scales
rating: 9.3 / votes: 127 
Hi. I have looked at the scales resources on this site, and many of them have great value, but I couldn't find any that were good for a guitarist who knew nothing at all about scales. I have a couple of students in this position, and I put together some notes for them. I thought there may be others who would find the material helpful. **What you can expect from this lesson** If I've done it right, at the end of these notes you will know 3 things: 1. What a scale is. 2. How to play one scale on various positions of your fretboard. 3. What issues to consider if you want to extend your scales knowledge and practice. **First, some definitions** An interval is the space or distance between any 2 notes. Intervals can be described in various ways: a third, a tone, a step, and a fret are all terms that people use to talk about music intervals. In this lesson I will describe intervals by the number of frets involved. An octave is the interval between 2 special notes. These notes will have the same sound and feel when you play them, even though they are not the same pitch. On a guitar, the octave notes are any pair of notes 12 frets apart. The simplest example of octave notes is when you play a string open (no left hand fretting) and then the same string at the 12th fret. (This fret is often dotted on the side of the fretboard to help you find and play it) Play this set of notes:
(highest pitch string)
1 E |--0--12------------------------------------|
2 B |---------0--12-----------------------------|
3 G |----------------0--12----------------------|
4 D |-----------------------0--12---------------|
5 A |-----------------------------0--12---------|
6 E |------------------------------------0--12--|
(lowest pitch string)
The first two notes are both E notes. The E note at fret 12 is one octave higher than the open E note. On string 2 the open note is B, and the fret 12 note is also B, one octave higher. And so on. (By the way, acoustically an octave is created by a 2:1 proportion of harmonics. Fret 12 of your guitar is midway between the two bridges of your guitar. Playing at fret 12 makes your string half the length of the open string, and thus raises the pitch one octave.) Next, a scale is any set of notes that leads from one note to a second note an octave higher or lower. If you start at the low note and finish at the high note, you have played an ascending scale. And obviously, going from high to low creates a descending scale. All of these examples are scales. Try them out.
eg1 |--0--12-----------------------------|

eg2 |--0--7--12--------------------------|

eg3 |--0--7--11--12----------------------|

eg4 |--12--7--0--------------------------|

eg5 |--0--2--4--6--8--10--12-------------|

eg6 |--12--11--10--9--8--7--6--5--4--3--2--1--0--|
Some points to remember. First, there is nothing in those examples to tell you which string to play. The scale is created not by particular notes but by the 12 fret gap, so you will play a valid scale whichever string you choose. So you should try the examples on different strings. If you listen carefully you will start to hear how the patterns are all the same, even though the pitch may be higher or lower. Secondly, if you compare example 2 and example 4, you will see the notes played are the same. The only difference is the direction of the scale. So we have played the same scale in both examples. One is ascending, the other descending. Try creating your own scales according to the above principles. Start with any open string, end on fret 12 of the same string, and in between play as few or many notes as you choose. Or start at fret 12 and play a descending scale, finishing with the open string. A root note is the main note of the scale, and is usually the note you start and finish with. If you play these notes...
1 E |--0--12------------------------------------|

...your root note is probably E.  And if you play these notes...

2 B |---------0--12-----------------------------|
...your root note is probably B. (I say probably because if you get as far as studying the different modes of a scale, you will find out that there are exceptions to this principle. But for the rest of this lesson, the root note and first note will be the same.) Finally the root note sets the key for your music. The key is simply the overall range of your music. If you take your music up or down a step, you have changed key. For example, here is the first line of Mary had a little Lamb in 3 different keys. If you play the tune, hum or sing it as well. That will give you a better feel as to how the key varies.
Key 1
1 E |--4--2--0--2--4--4--4---------------------|

Key 2
1 E |--6--4--2--4--6--6--6---------------------|

Key 3
1 E |--8--6--4--6--8--8--8---------------------|
Same tune; 3 different levels. **A picture to hang your hat on** If you are a visual person, try this picture. You are in the stairwell of a multi storey building. There is a flight of stairs connecting each floor. As you walk up or down the stairwell you count the steps. You discover that there are 12 steps between each floor. This means that if you start at the foot of one flight of stairs and go up 12 steps, you will be at the foot of the next flight. Or if you start on the 3rd step of one flight, 12 steps later you will be on the 3rd step of the next flight. This is a picture of our scales and octaves. Step 5 on the 2nd flight and step 5 on the 3rd flight are octave steps, and the scale is the set of the steps you take (up or down) to get from one to the other. A five foot person might touch down on every step and create a 12 stride scale. A six foot six walker might only touch down on every second step, and thus create a six stride scale. And the bank robber being chased by the police might get from one landing to the next in only two strides. A different kind of scale again. **The major scale** As we have seen, in theory there are many note patterns that could form a musical scale. However a few special patterns have come to predominate. The major scale is the most important and commonly used pattern in all Western music. So in the rest of this lesson we will learn the basics of this scale pattern, and then finish with some suggestions about further areas to work at. Start by playing these notes on string 1. Play them often enough so that you can hear the sound of the scale as a whole. At this stage don't worry about your fingering. Fingering is important, but that is a matter for further study.
1 E |--0--2--4--5--7--9--11--12--|
Now play these notes on string 2...
2 B |--0--2--4--5--7--9--11--12--|
As before, you will see that it doesn't matter which string you choose. The overall sound of those 8 notes remains the same, because they are in the same proportions to each other. Try the same pattern on the other strings. Now play these notes...
1 E |--1--3--5--6--8--10--12--13--|
Again, you should hear the same scale sound as before. We didn't start with an open string, but the first and last notes are 12 frets apart, and the proportions between each note in the scale are once again the same. Finally, play this set of notes. It is a different scale, created by two small changes in the pattern. By now, you should be able to hear the change in the sound of this pattern and hence know that this is not a major scale.
1 E |--0--2--3--5--7--8--10--12--|
(If you're curious, you've just played an E minor scale!) What is it that makes a major (or any other) scale? The answer - intervals. The interval between each note in the scale has a certain pattern. Change the pattern, and you change the kind of scale you are playing. Let's look at our major scale again. This time we will also record the interval (the number of frets) between each note in the scale.
1 E      |--0---2---4---5---7---9---11---12--|
interval      2   2   1   2   2   2    1

or more generally,

note     1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
interval   2   2   1   2   2   2   1
So all you need to do to produce a major scale anywhere on the guitar is to find your starting note and then play an 8 note scale with this 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 pattern. **A scale by any other name...** Our next step is to learn briefly how major scales are named. Because there are 12 frets between the octave notes, there are in fact 12 different major scales. The scale type is the same, but the root note is different in each case. This creates 12 different keys. The first key, and the only key we are going to study in this lesson, is the key of C major. The notes of the scale are named using the first seven letters of the alphabet, like this:
note   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
name   C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
(Remember that the scale has 8 notes, but the first and last notes are the octave notes. They have the same essence, so they have the same name.) You will recall that there are 12 frets in an octave. However we have only named 7 of those frets by letter. The other 5 frets are named by using the adjacent letters plus a sharp or flat sign. For example, C and D are the first 2 notes of the C major scale, so between C and D there is a 2 fret interval (remember the pattern? 2-2-1-2-2-2-1). So what about the note in between? This note can be named in two ways: C sharp (1 fret up from C) or D flat (1 fret down from D). The sign for a sharp is a stylised hash symbol (#) and the sign for a flat is a stylised b. So C sharp is written as C#, and D flat is written as Db. Put all this together and you get the names for every fret in your octave. They go like this:
A
A# or Bb
B
C
C# or Db
D
D# or Eb
E
F
F# or Gb
G
G# or Ab
(and back to A)
If you play all 12 of these notes in a row you have played a special scale known as a chromatic scale. You can now use these note names to identify the note of every fret on your guitar. For example, the frets on string one are named like this...
1E fret |--0--1--2---3--4---5--6---7--8--9--10--11-12--13-|
   name    E  F  F#  G  G#  A  A#  B  C  C#  D  D#  E  F etc
                (Gb)   (Ab)   (Bb)      (Db)   (Eb)     
...and the frets on string 2 have exactly the same 12 note names, except they start with B rather than E. You may have questions about all this, such as Why does this scale run from C to C, and not A to A? or Why not 12 letters to name the 12 frets between the octaves? Good questions. There are answers, but to deal with them we would need a more extensive knowledge of historical music theory and sheet music notation. It's like asking why does one culture write left to right, and another culture right to left? So for the present just accept that we start with C. In music C could be described as the default scale. It's the only major scale that has no sharp or flat notes added. Every other major scale needs to use at least one sharp or flat to fill in the gaps. This makes the C major scale easiest to learn at this point. So, C it is. Let's play this scale on our guitar. There is a C note on string 2, fret 1, so we could play it as follows:
2 B |--1---3---5---6---8---10--12--13--|
note   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
name   C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
steps    2   2   1   2   2   2   1
Congratulations! You have just learned your first official scale. **Scale patterns on the fretboard** So far we have focussed on playing scales on single strings. This is a good way to learn about scales, because you get a better sense of the intervals that you need between the various notes. But to play scales smoothly at speed, we need to use the notes on different strings. We will do this now, using the C major scale as our template. Remember the essence of a scale - a pattern of notes leading from a starting note to the same note an octave higher or lower. So if we are studying the C major scale we need to know where each C note is on our guitar. For a guitar using standard tuning the pitch of the open strings is as follows (remember that string 1 is closest to the floor): String 1 = E String 2 = B String 3 = G String 4 = D String 5 = A String 6 = E So if you know those values, and if you have learned the 12 note names of your chromatic scale above, you should be able to work out the name of any note on any string and fret on your guitar. You may not be able to do it instantly, but that skill will come as you practice. For example, on string 5 the open string is A. Therefore the note at fret 1 is A#. At fret 2 the note is B, and at fret 3 it is C (see the tab below).
1 E |----------------------------------|
2 B |----------------------------------|
3 G |----------------------------------|
4 D |----------------------------------|
5 A |-0--1--2--3-----------------------|
6 E |----------------------------------|
note: A  A# B  C (C#, etc)
For our second C note we will use the C on string 2. The open string is B, so the C note is on fret 1:
1 E |----------------------------------|
2 B |-0--1-----------------------------|
3 G |----------------------------------|
4 D |----------------------------------|
5 A |----------------------------------|
6 E |----------------------------------|
note: B  C (C#, etc)
And so we can play our C major scale across strings 5, 4, 3 and 2, starting at the low C and ascending or the high C and descending. All we need to do is play the same notes in between that make up the C major scale. Here is the C major scale, both ascending and descending:
1 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
2 B |-------------------0--1---||-1--0-----------------------|
3 G |-------------0--2---------||-------2--0-----------------|
4 D |----0--2--3---------------||-------------3--2--0--------|
5 A |-3------------------------||----------------------3-----|
6 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
note: C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C      C  B  A  G  F  E  D  C
As you play this scale, try to hear the major scale sound. The notes and the intervals between each note are exactly the same as when you played your major scale on one string. **A brief detour** By now you need to start thinking about the fingering for your fretboard hand. Play these 4 notes:
1 E |--1--2--3--4------------------
You could have played all 4 notes by using just your first finger and moving your hand sideways for each note. But a better fingering is to play them with all four fingers, keeping your hand steady, as below.
1 E    |--1--2--3--4------------------
finger    1  2  3  4
Your hand at this point is said to be in first position, because the first finger is playing the note on fret 1. Now play these notes.
1 E    |--2--3--4--5---------------
Again, the best fingering is to use all four fingers and keep your hand steady:
1 E    |--2--3--4--5---------------
finger    1  2  3  4
In this case your hand is in second position, because your first finger is playing the second fret note. Both sets of notes are identical in terms of finger movements and patterns. The only difference is the positioning of your hand. In the scales that follow I will add the hand position and fingerings that I use. Feel free to use them or not as you wish. **Back to C major** We can expand our C major scale further as we learn more about the notes on our fretboard. In the previous example, we played the C major scale from the C on string 5 to the C on string 2. But in fact there is a C note on each string of your guitar somewhere between the open string and fret 12. As we learn where they are, this opens up possibilites for new ways to play our scales. Some scales will be the same as the one above, but played in a different position on your guitar. Others will be different scales - still a major scale, but covering a different octave. Here are the 6 C notes:
1 E |--8------------------------
2 B |-----1---------------------
3 G |--------5------------------
4 D |-----------10--------------
5 A |---------------3-----------
6 E |------------------8--------
So using these root notes we can create scales in various positions on our guitar. You have already learned to play the C major scale like this...
1 E |--------------------------|
2 B |-------------------0--1---|
3 G |-------------0--2---------|
4 D |----0--2--3---------------|
5 A |-3------------------------|
6 E |--------------------------|

...but it could also be played like this:

1 E |--------------------------|
2 B |--------------------------|
3 G |----------------2--4--5---|
4 D |-------2--3--5------------|
5 A |-3--5---------------------|
6 E |--------------------------|
The scale is identical. The only change is that you have chosen notes on different strings to create the scale. My suggestion for fingering is to play the first scale in first position (play C with your third finger, D open, E with your second finger, and so on), and the second scale in second position (so you will now play C with your second finger, D with your fourth finger, E with your first finger and so on). The six patterns that follow are all examples of a C major scale. Each pattern is distinguished by which pair of strings the first and last notes are on. Pattern 1 From string 5 to string 2 Play in first position (play note 1 with your third finger)
1 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
2 B |-------------------0--1---||-1--0-----------------------|
3 G |-------------0--2---------||-------2--0-----------------|
4 D |----0--2--3---------------||-------------3--2--0--------|
5 A |-3------------------------||----------------------3-----|
6 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
Pattern 2 From string 5 to string 3 Play in second position (play note 1 with your second finger)
1 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
2 B |--------------------------||----------------------------|
3 G |----------------2--4--5---||-5--4--2--------------------|
4 D |-------2--3--5------------||----------5--3--2-----------|
5 A |-3--5---------------------||-------------------5--3-----|
6 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
Pattern 3 From string 6 to string 4 Play in seventh position (play note 1 with your second finger)
1 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
2 B |--------------------------||----------------------------|
3 G |--------------------------||----------------------------|
4 D |----------------7--9--10--||-10-9--7--------------------|
5 A |-------7--8--10-----------||----------10-8--7-----------|
6 E |-8--10--------------------||-------------------10-8-----|
Pattern 4 From string 6 to string 3 Play in fifth position (play note 1 with your fourth finger). You will need to move to fourth position for the last 2 notes.
1 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
2 B |--------------------------||----------------------------|
3 G |-------------------4--5---||-5--4-----------------------|
4 D |-------------5--7---------||-------7--5-----------------|
5 A |----5--7--8---------------||-------------8--7--5--------|
6 E |-8------------------------||----------------------8-----|
Pattern 5 From string 3 to string 1 Play in fifth position (play note 1 with first finger)
1 E |----------------5--7--8---||-8--7--5--------------------|
2 B |-------5--6--8------------||----------8--6--5-----------|
3 G |-5--7---------------------||-------------------7--5-----|
4 D |--------------------------||----------------------------|
5 A |--------------------------||----------------------------|
6 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
Pattern 6 From string 4 to string 1 Play in seventh position (play note 1 with fourth finger)
1 E |-------------------7--8---||-8--7-----------------------|
2 B |-------------8--10--------||-------10-8-----------------|
3 G |----7--9--10--------------||-------------10-9--7--------|
4 D |-10-----------------------||----------------------10----|
5 A |--------------------------||----------------------------|
6 E |--------------------------||----------------------------|
And there you have it! Hopefully you understand something of what a scale is all about, and can play your first scales up and down your fretboard. **For further study...** Scales in music is a huge area. There are lots of good resources on this web site and elsewhere. Here are my tips for other areas you should look at. 1. Work on your fingering. It's worth taking the time to learn healthy techniques for both your left and right hands. 2. Develop practice strategies. There are lots of ideas around. One exercise that I give my students is the mini scale. They start with notes 1-3, and when they have mastered those notes, they add one note at a time until they can play the scale:
1 E |--------------------------|
2 B |--------------------------|
3 G |--------------------------|
4 D |----0--2--0---------------|
5 A |-3-----------3------------|
6 E |--------------------------|

1 E |--------------------------|
2 B |--------------------------|
3 G |--------------------------|
4 D |----0--2--3--2--0---------|
5 A |-3-----------------3------|
6 E |--------------------------|

1 E |---------------------------|
2 B |---------------------------|
3 G |-------------0-------------|
4 D |----0--2--3-----3--2--0----|
5 A |-3-----------------------3-|
6 E |---------------------------|
and so on. Another tip here - make sure that you practice your descending scales as much as your ascending scales. 3. Create other patterns with your scales. There are many ways you can take the basic scale notes and weave them together in different combinations. Here is one example. It is based on pattern 1 with the third notes added (a musical third is 2 notes up in the scale from the previous note. In the scale of C major, C to E is a third; so are D to F, E to G and so on.)
1 E |---------------------------------------------|
2 B |----------------------------0-----1--0--3--1-|
3 G |----------------0-----2--0-----2-------------|
4 D |----2--0--3--2-----3-------------------------|
5 A |-3-------------------------------------------|
6 E |---------------------------------------------|
notes C     D     E     F     G     A     B     C
         E     F     G     A     B     C     D
4. Explore other kinds of scale. We have only looked at the major scale here. The arpeggio, pentatonic and minor scales are other patterns that you should try out when ready. 5. Learn to play scales over more than one octave. By combining your scales you can play music that covers more than one octave. Here is one example to give you the idea. It combines pattern 2 and pattern 5. If you can already play these two patterns, the only detail of technique you need to consider is the fingering when you move from the first octave to the second and back. The shift is between 2nd position and 5th position, and it happens on string 3, so I have given the fingering for each note on that string.
(ascending)
1 E |-------------------------------------5--6--8--|
2 B |----------------------------5--6--8-----------|
3 G |----------------2--4--5--7--------------------|
4 D |-------2--3--5--------------------------------|
5 A |-3--5-----------------------------------------|
6 E |----------------------------------------------|
    | 2nd position...   |  5th position...       
fingering:           1  3  1  3

(descending)
1 E |-8--7--5--------------------------------------|
2 B |----------8--6--5-----------------------------|
3 G |-------------------7--5--4--2-----------------|
4 D |-------------------------------5--3--2--------|
5 A |----------------------------------------5--3--|
6 E |----------------------------------------------|
    | 5th position...   |  2nd position...       
fingering:              1  3  1  3
6. Put your scales to use. There are of course thousands of ways to do this. One simple idea is to play the melody line of any song using one specific scale pattern. For an example, see Doe, a deer from the Sound of Music (I have recently loaded a version of this song onto U-G - choose the chord version, which also has the melody line). You will see that this song uses the 8 notes of a major scale, and to play it smoothly you need to know your scale well. You could take a song like this and learn to play it with each of our 6 scale patterns. Happy scale surfing!
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